How to Make that New Smartphone Actually Smart

Your X-Mas wish came true! Santa wisely consulted one of our best-of-the-best lists and left you a shiny new smartphone under the tree. So, uh, now what? Here's a step-by-step guide to getting that bad boy up and running. Getting Started Out of the bo...
How to Make that New Smartphone Actually Smart

Your X-Mas wish came true! Santa wisely consulted one of our best-of-the-best lists and left you a shiny new smartphone under the tree. So, uh, now what? Here’s a step-by-step guide to getting that bad boy up and running.

Getting Started

Out of the box, most smartphones aren’t all that smart. In fact, many can be downright idiotic. Prepping your new pocket ‘puter means some hand-holding, which also means slogging through a checklist of occasionally tedious (but necessary) steps. Don’t worry, we’re here to help. Remember, this device will be your constant companion for the next year or two. So you’ll want to start the relationship off right.


Pre-charging Tip

Regardless of the specific smartphone you received for the holidays, the weakest link is likely its battery. Treating your Li-ion with respect will not only extend the life and usefulness of your new phone, but also boost its resale value—just in case you decide to dump to back on the market prematurely. Lucky for you, almost all the major manufacturers offer guidance here, including Palm, Apple, and BlackBerry. What they won’t tell you, however, is that you must resist the urge to immediately charge your smartphone. Yup, let that 30-60 percent charge go down to zero before plugging in. Juicing up your smartphone in its half-charged state will make the battery components settle faster. That, in turn, will mean it won’t be able to re-charge as efficiently in the future. Ideally, you should always wait for the battery to drain before recharging to maintain good health, but the occasional slip won’t matter much. If you really want to understand these fickle little bricks, check out our Giz explains feature on why batteries die.

Moving Your Data


Why no one has figured out how to make this process easier is beyond us. Anyhow, here are a few options for shuffling all your contacts to your new handset:

  • The easiest way is to simply have your carrier to do it. This option is particularly useful if you’re upgrading on the same carrier. Stop by your local retail store and a service rep should be able to transfer them in a minute or two. Beware: If you’re switching carriers, there may be a small fee associated with the contacts relocation. Be sure to ask.
  • If you have a GSM phone, you can also use its SIM card to make the transfer. These days almost every phone (smart or dumb) will have an option to ‘write all contacts’ to a SIM card. After you’ve done this, simply remove your old card and slide it into your new phone. Be sure to transfer all your contacts from the old SIM onto your new phone’s memory, as you’ll be taking the old SIM out again. This, of course, won’t work for CDMA (SIM-less) carriers. Sorry, Verizon and Sprint customers.
  • You can also use Google Sync and a protocol called SyncML to make the transfer. Google Sync supports quite a few smartphones, including the iPhone, as well as ones from Nokia, Windows, and BlackBerry. Once it pulls all your old contacts into your Google account, you can go back to the cloud and make it rain contacts.


Depending the phone, e-mail can either be a tremendous pain in the ass or a breeze. You’re first step is, again, consulting the manufacturers: Most, like Apple, Google, Palm and Microsoft, offer quick setup guides. Note that depending on the service provider and phone, Exchange and Gmail setups will be completely different. Here’s a good rule of thumb to keep in mind during the process: use IMAP (not POP). This will keep your messages and their read/unread statuses in sync with your desktop clients. Because most of your e-mail downloading will be still be happening over 3G for now, you’ll also want to set some limits. A 10 kb cap for individual message sizes is best. This can help boost the speed of your incoming messages.


Google Calendar users have it the easiest—particularly if they’re using a new Android phone. By default, your calendars will automatically sync with your phone. The Pre 2 will do this too, while the iPhone needs to be configured with CalDav.

Media and Syncing

A smartphone isn’t designed to be a solitary device. You’ll need to check in with home base (a desktop or laptop) now and again. That means you’ll be dealing with a cadre of desktop software to transfer personal info, music, videos and photos. If you’re a MobileMe customer, Apple takes care of syncing bookmarks, calendars, contacts for you over the air. Still, you’ll need to download iTunes to use and active your phone. For BlackBerry users, you can download the BlackBerry Desktop Manager. Windows phone 6.5 and 7 users are best served by Windows Device Center. And if you’re against using official software, Android and Palm phones (as well as Windows phones, iPhones and BlackBerrys) all play nice with doubleTwist, a cross-platform music player/media syncing app.

Converting Video

Your 32GBs are crying for content. But you can’t just copy all those torrented videos over to your smartphone. First you’ll need to encode them with something like Handbrake. You’re aiming for converting those files to 320×240 h.264 here. Most new smartphones will be able to play that back without a hitch.

Apps? Apps. Apps!

They can make or break a smartphone. So where do you go to find the essentials? There’s no better place than Giz. But before diving into the downloads, we recommend you familiarize yourself with the affiliated app stores. Here’s our comprehensive list and their respective advantages and disadvantages. Okay, now onto the apps!


Your first stop should be Gizmodo’s Essential iPhone Apps Directory. It’s a compendium of the best of the best, and everything else you need to make your iPhone into a mobile powerhouse. If you’d rather not pay for apps, we got you covered too. Check out our Essential Free Apps. Just be careful. Those free versions seem to be stealing your personal info without asking. We also do regular posts and weekly roundups, so be sure to check them out too.


Snag the Nexus S? You’ll want to hit up our 10 Best Android Apps roundup. Keep yours eyes peeled for our monthly roundups too for the latest additions to the store.


Here, we defer to the specialists: CrackBerry not only does regular reviews, they even have their own app store. In many ways, it’s even better than BlackBerry’s official shop, which isn’t really saying much.


Palm doesn’t exactly have a thriving app store. While it’s a little dated, you can go through our Essential PalmOS roundup. Beyond that, PreCentral’s official app reviews are fairly fantastic. Also worth checking out is their extensive homebrew app gallery, which has about as many decent apps in it as the official catalog.

Windows Phone 7

First, peep our roundup of Windows Phone 7 Apps. Next, check out our list of seven essential apps. Done.

OS Tricks and Tips

Whether you’re coming to your smartphone’s operating system fresh or are a seasoned veteran, here are a few tips for getting the most out of your new device.


Double-tap quick app switching, killing background apps, fiddling with the wallpaper—our pals at Lifehacker cover them all.


Gingerbread is here, y’all. Check out Google’s Senior VP of Product Management, Jonathan Rosenberg’s list of tips. They’re good.


PreCentral has a nice basic list of WebOS tricks. And if you just snagged the Pre 2, check out Palm’s own site.

Windows Phone 7

Head over to Microsoft’s site for the basics.


You can either head over the BlackBerry’s official tips and tricks site, or read through TechRadar’s comprehensive list.

The Accessories

No smartphone is perfect. And frankly, it’s easy to go overboard on accessories that make up for those inevitable faults. Resist that urge. Remember, you’ll only be dumping more money into a device that you’re ditching in two years (maybe less). That said, there are definitely some worthwhile investments you can make. Here’s our list:

A Case

Yes, they can ruin the cut of your smartphone’s jib. But even with Gorilla Glass, liquid metal and all those other fancy materials, your new smartphone is heartbreakingly fragile. Put simply: You’re going to want a case. You can go crazy if you want, but there’s no need to spend much. Here’s our list of sub-$5 cases that’ll get the job done. The main thing to make sure of is that your device’s corners are covered. It’s the edge impacts that typically shatter the glass. We’ll remind you here of the same thing we did last year: You’re now stuck in a multi-thousand dollar contract with this one device, which itself costs hundreds of dollars to replace. So yeah, be careful.


If your phone wasn’t your primary music player before, it is now. Step one: Throw out the headphones or headset it came with. Seriously, none of them are good. We love Bowers & Wilkins P5s if you want to pamper your ears a bit. If you’d rather go with something more discrete (and cheap), you can’t beat a pair of Shures either. Just remember, a decent pair of earphones will cost you 100 bones or more—with the exception of maybe the MC5s. It’ll be worth it as long as your digital music collection is up to the task.


Most smartphones either come with internal or “expandable storage. If yours falls into the latter category, it likely means it’s got an empty microSD slot somewhere. Rule of thumb: If your phone comes with less than 2GB of space and has said slot, you need to fill it. Go ahead and grab at least an 8GB microSD card. They can be found online for well under $20.


Picking up a spare charging cable for your phone is never a bad idea. For most smartphones this is a simple mini/microUSB cable. For iPhones, it’s an iPod dock connector. Trust us, you will lose them, and having a backup can be a life saving on road trips and in the office.

Send an email to Bryan Gardiner, the author of this post, at [email protected]

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